When I first tried to reach celebrity cowboy chef Grady Spears last week, his phone didn't have service. At the time, he was hauling a chuck wagon across the vast plains of Texas, ya see, where a man may encounter a gum tree, but danged sure not a cellphone tower.
When I first tried to reach celebrity cowboy chef Grady Spears last week, his phone didn’t have service. At the time, he was hauling a chuck wagon across the vast plains of Texas, ya see, where a man may encounter a gum tree, but danged sure not a cellphone tower.
We finally talked when Spears got back to Fort Worth and to his restaurant Horseshoe Hill, where he dishes out an average of 800 chicken fried steaks a day. As we talked, I realized that the chuck wagon he hitched to his Jeep this week is hitched just as firmly to the whole mythology of chicken fried steak in Texas.
What is chicken fried steak? It’s one of America’s blessedly simple dishes that carries just a modicum of technique, an eruption of succulence, and the taste of legend in every forkful. It is a thin piece of beef, often “cube steak,” which has been tenderized and is well-seasoned, battered or coated in some fashion. It then goes into the deep fryer until golden-brown on the outside and just cooked-through on the inside.
If these encounters with fat are too few for the chef, Spears ladles a cream gravy over the cooked meat on the plate. How often? Oh, just once a steak, but on every single steak if you’re a genuine Texan. That’s 800 ladles a day at Horseshoe Hill and a whole helluva lot more around America’s second-largest state.
CREATED IN TEXAS
Most people in Texas just take it for granted that chicken fried steak is a Texas dish. At our Flavored Nation event in St. Louis in October, we’ll present chicken fried steak as the iconic dish of Texas. And Grady Spears, in full cowboy regalia, will be there to cook it.
There’s lots of talk about chicken fried steak that’s un-cowboy, even un-Texan. Other states serve it and make claims. Contiguous states like Oklahoma do it, to be sure, but you’ll also find an active chicken fried steak culture in places like Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama.
“Those aren’t really chicken fried steaks,” Spears objects. “They cook ‘em on a griddle. They’re into brown gravy. These are country-fried steaks.”
Austrians and Germans are the progenitors of chicken fried steak in Texas. Many of them came to Central Texas in the 19th century and, before you could say Wiener Schnitzel, the Austrian fried veal cutlet, great schnitzels were being nostalgically cooked in Texas, particularly in Dawson County on the Texas South Plains.
Does Spears equate Wiener Schnitzel, or Veal Milanese, for that matter, with chicken fried steak?
“Nah,” he says, “Beef is king in Texas. Beef is more than a staple for us. It’s our treasure. Chicken fried steak is its own thing because it’s beef! I don’t want a tender, wimpy bite like chicken or veal. I’m a Texan. I want a meat that bites back when I bite it. That’s why I never use tender luxury cuts like filet mignon for chicken fried steak. My choice is top sirloin, all the way.”
It’s especially curious, then, that the name of the dish headlines the word “chicken,” even before it mentions “steak.” There are two good ways to explain that. The logical way is that “chicken” is only used to tell you the cooking method. “Chicken fried steak,” according to this theory, means “steak cooked as you would cook fried chicken.” Many dishes of the world contain a food reference in their names and to a food that’s not in the dish, the most famous example in the U.S. being the Cantonese Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, which is shrimp served with the kind of sauce that you would serve with lobster, but with no lobster to be found.
However, the more charming explanation, apocryphal though it may be, is that in 1911 a Dawson County short-order cook, working at a restaurant called Ethel’s Home Cooking, received a written order from a waitress that said “chicken, fried steak.” It was two orders, but the cook, in the heat of culinary battle, somehow missed the comma. He thought he was being asked for “chicken fried steak,” which prompted him, in the great serendipitous tradition of the sisters Tatin, to dunk a steak in fried chicken batter, deep-fry it, and present for service something brand new under the sun. The customers loved it, of course, and you know the rest.
PERFECTED IN THE CHUCK WAGON
This story is good support for the Texas-ness of chicken fried steak. But for Spears, one story above all nails chicken fried steak as a quintessential Texas dish.
“It’s all about the chuck wagon,” he says, which was instrumental in the growth of the cattle and beef industry in Texas. “Texas is the home of the ranch.”
The ranchers, lacking nearby railroads in the mid-19th century, used to take their ranch-raised cattle to other places, often New Mexico, on cattle drives. Now, how’re those boys gonna live out there on the plains for weeks, even months? Easy answer — a mobile kitchen called the chuck wagon was invented by one Charles Goodnight, who was born near St. Louis but became a Texas rancher to participate in the Texas beef boom after the Civil War. Perfectly outfitted chuck wagons specialized in preserved ingredients such as jerky, an ideal chuck wagon food.
“However,” Spears says, “the cowboys on the drives, like most people, wanted some variety in their meals. Often, during the drive, a steer might fall down on the way, might be unable to go on. That’s the time for beef-eating! Remember, though, that there were no ovens. They developed all kinds of beef-improv cooking methods. Since they had flour, and pepper, and oil for the journey, chicken fried steak made its debut.”
Now, 150 years later, what is the mark of a great chicken fried steak to Spears, who is still making the dish across Texas at special events out of a chuck wagon?
“Just like fried chicken,” he says, “it’s all about the bumpy irregularity of the coating. We use a machine for rolling out the steaks called the Jaccard which, while flattening the meats, also puts deep grooves through it, which contribute to the irregularity of the coating. We also pound the seasoned flour into the meat by hand, which creates what we call ‘flavor nodules’ on the outside of the steaks.”
Well, that’s the ultimate criterion for chicken fried steak quality, and Spears, author of nine cookbooks including “The Cowboy in the Kitchen” (Ten Speed Press, 1998) and “Cooking the Cowboy Way” (Andrews McMeel Publishing 2009), well-known local celebrity for his cowboy cooking shows on TV, consulting chef for the NFL’s Houston Texans and highly successful restaurant owner, is never as happy as when he’s hitching a chuck wagon across the vast plains of Texas, dreaming about the next way to create bumps on a chicken fried steak.
David Rosengarten is content director for FLAVORED NATION. He has won a James Beard Award for his cookbook “It’s ALL American Food,” and another Beard Award for his newsletter, “The Rosengarten Report.” Rosengarten appeared in the first show on the Food Network, and went on to appear in approximately 2,500 Food Network shows, including his cooking show “TASTE.” Find out more at flavorednation.com.